I recently experienced the thrill of the hunt when I stumbled upon the Facebook page of St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney, Australia, last Lent. To be fair to myself, I had known about and listened to recordings of this fine choir numerous times over the past and had always considered them to be an exceptional group of singers, but it was a a Facebook recording of the choir singing Bruckner’s Christus factus est as the Gradual on Good Friday that struck deeply into my soul.
I’ve heard and sung the piece on many occasions, but never at that precise moment, the proper moment, in the Good Friday Liturgy. Put there, immediately before the reading of the Passion, it beautifully encapsulated the emptying out of Christ on the Cross, yet because of this contained the seeds of glory that would be Christ’s Name, that Name above all other names. I must admit I watched the video a number of times and never tired of it. I even shared it with some of my choristers. It also led to a deeper search of the choir’s website where I discovered another gem–the choir’s podcast, Staved Off.
If you are interested in the great English Cathedral music tradition (I know, the choir is not from England, but I doubt if most listeners could tell that) and want to know more about its inner workings, please consider listening in. There are about a dozen podcasts in all and topics include things such as music for the holy seasons throughout the year and other events such as weddings, information about the choir’s 200 year history, choral festivals, Gregorian chant, English and Latin hymnody and much more. You will hear great recordings of great music sung by the choir and links are provided to numerous other related items. Thomas Wilson, the director of music, is one of the hosts, so you get the information straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak (no disrespect meant to Mr. Wilson). I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
Two weeks ago I shared with readers a letter I sent to the Head Master of the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (London) regarding the school’s recent decision to alter the boarding arrangements of its choristers. I felt (and continue to feel) that such an incredible religious and cultural institution as the Westminster Cathedral Choir must be preserved and promoted at all costs.
The Westminster Cathedral Choir was built, so to speak, by Cardinal Vaughan and Sir Richard Terry, the choir’s first director, in 1901 alongside the actual cathedral, owing to the Cardinal’s belief (and the Church’s) that nothing should be spared in the worship of almighty God and that all the arts, but especially music, should be employed toward that end. If a grand cathedral for London was to be built, then there must be a program of sacred music worthy of the Ancient Rites that would celebrated in it. Sir Richard, a convert to Catholicism and the undoubted leader of the revival of English Renaissance music, fulfilled the cardinal’s desires and made his dream a reality.
In the wider western world, Pope St. Pius X would shorty release his Motu ProprioTra le solecitudini, calling for the restoration of Gregorian chant as the Church’s music par excellence and for the primacy of Renaissance polyphony above other choral music. At the same time, the early music scene was alive and well in England and much of the early music that Terry unearthed eventually found its was into the cathedral music lists. It was thanks to Terry that we now have the Byrd Masses for 3, 4 and 5 voices and many other gems of the English Renaissance. To this day, the influence of Pope St. Pius X and Sir Richard Terry are evident in the cathedral music lists, where Gregorian chant and polyphony, especially works from the English pen, form the bedrock of the cathedral’s music program.
Equally impressive as Sir Richard Terry are many of the men who took up the baton after him, names such as George Malcom, Colin Mawby, Stephen Cleobury, David Hill, James O’Donnell and now Martin Baker.
A number of years ago I had the privilege of hearing the choir live in concert and even the greatest of expectations I had were blown away. If I had had any misgivings about the $25 ticket I purchased (a large amount in graduate school), they were quickly done away with. I vividly remember being moved that evening by the simple chanting of the Veni Creator in alternatim with Durufle’s variations on the same melody. On my way out, I bought a CD of the choir singing Christmas Vespers and listened to it so much in the ensuing years that many of the tracts no longer played.
There are so many things I would like to share about the Westminster Cathedral Choir, but perhaps I will end with this. Each summer I spend two weeks at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, teaching high school students in the college’s immersion programs. One of my favorite things to do is to share with these young people how music is able to convey Truth, Goodness and Beauty in a way that the spoken word never could. Listening to Sir James MacMillan’s setting of the famous passage from Matthew 16, Thou art Peter… (Tu es Petrus), we flesh out a greater understanding of the Petrine ministry in the life of the Church in general and in the life of English Catholics in particular.
In this video we watch as Pope Benedict XVI enters Westminster Cathedral during his pastoral visit to England in 2010, the first visit from a reigning pontiff since the number of practicing Catholics surpassed the number of practicing Anglicans in 2007. The very term “pope,” from the Greek word for “father,” reminds us that our Holy Father is just that, a father, and that a father’s first duty is to provide for, to serve and to protect his children, even fighting for them when necessary. When we realize that Catholicism in England only recently emerged from four centuries of persecution and even now is under new forms of assault from modern culture, MacMillan’s setting, which conjures up images of a great battle, seems especially poignant. One might easily imagine it as a musical backdrop to the epic battles in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Pope Benedict, in this moment, prepares to enter into battle on behalf of his English children, but one is struck by the frailty of the man and realizes that this battle will not be of a physical nature, but of a spiritual one. By the grace of the Sacraments, particularly the Holy Mass, the devil will once again be put to flight. The music acknowledges this truth as it serenely comes to an end and the choir intones the Introit. Pope Benedict, papa, enters into the Holy of Holies, and in persona Christi is victorious over sin and death.
I am reminded of the care with which the Pieta was transported from the Vatican to New York City for the World’s Fair in 1964 and I hope and pray that the Westminster Cathedral Choir will be treated with as much veneration and respect.
The title of my current post comes from the first chapter of Anthony Esolen’s book on hymnody entitled Real Music (which can be purchased here). I was blessed to purchase the book as well as have a good conversation about it with the author himself last month and want to heartily recommend the, especially for the first chapter, which is devoted to the Psalter.
The Psalter, as Esolen notes, is the prayer book of the Church and the Psalms constitute the “foundational poems of Christian praise.” Not only are the Psalms truly beautiful in an aesthetic sense (which they undoubtedly are), but also because they speak to every moment of the Christian’s life on earth as well as the life to which he is called. They plumb the depths of joy, sorrow, praise, suffering, marriage, children, life, death, God and the fight between the family of God and it’s enemies. The Psalter was also the “hymnal” of Christ and Mary, the apostles and countless saints and sinners spanning the two millennia in the life of the Church. The only other hymnal that has come close to such longevity and vitality in the Roman Rite is the Graduale Romanum, another book of rare worth.
What I especially appreciate in his chapter on the Psalter is how Professor Esolen masterfully presents the reader with the beauty of the Hebrew Psalter and its idiosyncrasies, its structure and poetic styles, all without bogging the lay reader down with too many technical details of the Hebrew language. In a sense, he is able to bypass the trees and present the beauty of the forest. He also tackles the difficulty of not only translating the Psalter into English prose (he relies upon the beautiful King James version), but also the difficulty of creating metrical versions which live up to the majesty of the originals.
I do, however, want to caution the avid connoisseur of all things liturgical in the Roman Rite. This is not a work on the great hymns of the Divine Office or other liturgical chants that might be classified as hymns. Real Music deals with what one might classify as devotional hymns, which although not officially part of the Roman Liturgy, are nevertheless important to the flowering of true piety and love. Best of all, it comes with a CD containing a number of the hymns sung by the St. Cecilia Choir from St. John Cantius in Chicago. If you aren’t able to read music, just sing them with the CD until you know them by heart. I promise you, they will become a vibrant part of your spiritual life.
Choral Evensong comes via an archived recording from the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1992. I encourage all directors of sacred music programs to visit the choir’s website to hear recordings of an incredible choir and to see how this choir takes sacred music into the public sphere through its many incredible recordings and commissioning of new music. Truly amazing, and a challenge to all!
Today I would like to turn away from European choir schools and move closer to home, focusing on several in the United States, the first of which is St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square, in Boston.
Dr. Theodore Marier, the well known chant scholar, founded St. Paul’s Choir School in the autumn of 1963, creating the first and only Catholic choir school for boys in the United States. Today the school educates boys in grades 4 through 8. In 2010, the choir school hired Mr. John Robinson, formerly Assistant Organist at Canterbury Cathedral, to lead the choir. From various articles I have read, he is doing great work, such as implementing the ABRSM music theory curriculum in the school, hiring professional male singers for the choir and increasing the number of liturgies for which the choir sings on a weekly basis. Last fall, the choir released its first international CD entitled “Christmas in Harvard Square.” The parish’s pastor sums up the music at the choir school as (quoting Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) “Music capable of opening minds and hearts to the dimension of the spirit and of leading persons to raise their gaze on High, to open to absolute Goodness and Beauty, which have their ultimate source in God.” Would that all parish music programs could say the same.
One “take away” item I would like to share is that (if Wikipedia can be trusted!) Dr. Marier and the then pastor of St. Paul’s began the choir school in response to De music sacra, the 1958 document from the Sacred Congregation of Rites, which encouraged boys choirs and special schools for the teaching of sacred music. All it took was the vision of one parish priest (St. Paul’s is not a cathedral) and one music director to create such an incredible institution. Are you a priest, are you a music director? Perhaps God is calling YOU!